One hitch was that the center only offers the beginners' classes once every two months. People are not allowed to come to the center's regular meditation times without having first gone to the beginners' class, and people must email the director guy to sign up for the beginners' class beforehand. It seems like the idea of jumping through hoops and unnecessary bureaucracy is a bit of Brazilian flavor that the center wanted to add to their branch of this East Asian tradition.
The center's website was a little confusing, so Alexandre emailed the director guy to confirm the date and time of the next beginners' class and to say that we wanted to sign up. The guy said it would be Sunday from 10:00am - 12:00pm and his email included a vague scolding that told Alexandre to use the website to confirm this kind of information. (Clearly, the person responding to the emails hadn't seen the website in some time, since it said that an email confirmation was required.)
All right. So this morning, Alexandre and I went to the Buddhist center with open minds and comfortable clothes. The website said that we were required to wear black and that we should not wear "roupa social" (i.e., fancy or dressy clothes). All right, cool, I thought. Ridding ourselves of earthly adornments and all that. Getting dressed required more brain exercise than it usually does, so that was fun. The only problem is that I don't really own much black clothing at all. I ended up going with black stretchy gym pants, a long white sleeveless blouse with flower embroidery, a black cotton zip-up jacket, and grey flip-flops. Alexandre wore a regular black t-shirt and khakis (an earth tone, he argued).
When we got to the address that the GPS declared to be our destination at about 9:45, we were a little confused. There were no signs, no arrows, nothing. It was just an old house in a crowded downtown neighborhood. All of the doors and windows were closed. We rang the bell, but no one answered. Were we at the right place? we wondered. "They're teaching us patience," I joked.
Just then, an older hippie couple came up the street from around the corner. I swear they could've walked off a North Oakland farmer's market.
"Are you here for meditation?" the lady asked us in Portuguese. She was friendly.
"Well, we're here for the beginners' class," Alexandre explained.
The lady gave us a concerned face. "Hmm...didn't that start at 9:00am?" she asked.
"Well, the website said 10:00, so..."
"Well, all right. I must be wrong. It's probably at 10:00." The older lady shrugged. "They're always changing stuff like that. But anyway, you guys need to come in this door over here." She pointed to a side gate that led to an alley -- not a door. It had a padlock on it, but the woman's husband (or, more likely, her "life partner") had a key to it. So he opened it and guided us in.
The little alley led to a back room of the old-house-turned-Buddhism-center. Two men were in the room: another unshaven hippie who was barefoot and a short Brazilian man in a black robe and black flip-flops.
"That's the guy I emailed," Alexandre whispered to me, pointing to the man in the robe. "I recognize his picture from the website." I nodded.
The older couple and the two men in the room exchanged their hellos, and since the older couple took off their shoes, we did, too. (I guess the leader guy was allowed to keep his flip flops on, guaranteeing him more protection from ants and scorpions, since he was in charge and all.)
"They're here for the beginners' class," the woman explained to the robed leader man. She pointed to us.Then the four of them mumbled among themselves about whether the beginners' class was at 9:00 or 10:00. It had apparently started at 9:00, after all.
Alexandre looked to the leader man and said, "Oh, sorry. I guess there was some miscommunication. I was the one who emailed you a couple of weeks ago to confirm the 10:00 time." Alexandre was super polite and used the formal second person singular and everything.
The leader man just walked away with his eyes half-closed and said nothing. The unshaven hippie guided us to a room where the other beginners were finishing up their introductory class. "Go ahead and join them," he said.
There was a woman who was apparently the meditation teacher. She was also wearing one of the black robes.
"Come on in," she encouraged quietly and politely. "You guys are late, but I'll tell you the important stuff before we start. Go out to the hall and get a mat and a cushion." She pointed to the extra black mats and cushions, so we followed the instructions.
The teacher finished up an explanation about how to walk with one foot in front of the other during the walking exercise that would apparently occur later. Then, she went over the possible sitting positions. In all sitting positions, you apparently must keep your hands in a specific cupped position, like this:
She showed us students a way to sit on our femurs with the cushion between our legs, a way to sit on the front half of the cushion with one foot on the other thigh, and a way to sit on the front half of the cushion with legs crossed but both feet on the ground. She also offered a tiny wooden bench to anyone who thought they wouldn't be comfortable in the first three positions. Since Alexandre's khakis weren't doing him any favors, the lady told him, "ah, you might feel more comfortable using the bench when we meditate." Since she didn't bring it over to him, I understood that we wouldn't necessarily be starting right away.
...Except we did.
We didn't get that promised explanation of the important stuff (unless she considered sitting positions to be "the important stuff"). The other people came into the room, including the hippie couple, who had since dressed themselves in black robes, and the teacher lady just said, "all right. Turn to face the wall and choose a sitting position so we can begin." She rang a bell and lit some incense and everyone was silent.
Begin what? Meditating? How? For how long? What do I do? What's important? Am I supposed to breathe a certain way? Think certain thoughts? Focus on certain things?
Even though it is extremely difficult for me, I tried to be patient. I figured the teacher would come over to me and Alexandre and whisper some more instructions, like she had promised. I figured they wouldn't have let us come in late if that beginners' class had been so important. I waited for guidance and instruction and context. I waited some more. I stole glances at the people around me, who all had their eyes closed. I tried closing my eyes for a bit. I tried thinking about breathing. The little mouse in his wheel that is my brain continued racing along. I opened my eyes again and sighed.
I turned to glance at the teacher lady in hopes that I could send her a look of confusion and despair that would inspire her to help me. She only opened one eye sternly and then closed her eyes tightly again. It made it look like she was giving me the stink eye, so I turned back to the wall. The "meditation" started to feel like time-out, except I didn't know what I was in trouble for.
I was still hoping something would change and that someone who knew what was going on would bring me into the loop. I started analyzing the paint on the wall, trying to think deep, peaceful thoughts about it. Since my hands were in the perfect position for it, I started twiddling my thumbs. I sang the alphabet backwards in my head. I started playing "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" by myself, in silence, but then I decided that beer was inappropriate for a meditation session, so I changed my mental lyrics to "99 Bottles of Tea". I only got to 96 bottles of tea before I got bored and started sighing some more.
I tried focusing on the birds outside, because Buddhists care about nature, right? I know it goes more deeply than that, but no one wanted to tell me how or why. I recognized the calls of the rufous-collared sparrow and the great kiskadee. I mused over the fact that many people associate bird calls with peace and tranquility because they don't know much about birds. They think birds are singing or calling because they just can't contain their joy over the beauty of the morn'. In fact, birds are usually singing or calling because they see danger, or because they're horny and are trying to attract a mate.
After about 30 minutes, I ran out of things to think about. I know you're not supposed to think about things while you're meditating, but no one gave me any tips on how to not think, and my little hyperactive rat wheel brain wouldn't know where to start. "Restless" doesn't begin to describe how I was feeling. I remembered reading once how when people first get into meditation, they're supposed to start off by trying to meditate for only a couple of minutes, and they're supposed to slowly build up to these long, two-hour blocks that this Buddhist center had imposed. I started to panic at the thought of being forced to sit like that for another 90 minutes. What if the potentially fun walk the woman had mentioned didn't occur until AFTER 2 hours of staring at the wall? WHAT IF I HAD TO SIT LIKE THAT FOR ANOTHER 90 MINUTES?!?
I couldn't take it anymore. I stood up, rubbed Alexandre on the shoulder in an attempt to communicate "I'm fine, stay as long as you'd like," and I walked out of the room. I may have been breaking a rule by leaving, but it's hard to know if you're breaking a rule if no one tells you what the rules are.
I planned to get a head start on that walk by talking a walk around the neighborhood. But to my dismay, someone had locked the padlock back up! I was trapped inside the tiny Buddhist center! I think I actually mumbled "aw, HELL no!" to myself. I walked back to the "backyard" area behind the little house, which was literally just a slab of concrete. I figured I'd just sit on it and wait for Alexandre. It'd be better than being inside, because at least I'd be allowed to look at stuff.
But just as I sat down, the original leader man in the black flip flops came out.
"Miss?" he said.
"I'm very sorry," I started to explain. "I was just really confused because we missed the introductory class and I didn't know how long I needed to sit there."
"OK." was all he said. He walked over to the padlock and unlocked it, even though I didn't ask him to.
"I mean, I'd really like to know what's going on --"
"OK." he said again.
I almost felt like he was thinking, "yes, please, go. We don't need your anxious kind around here."
Just then, Alexandre came out.
"Are you OK?" he asked.
"Yeah, I'm fine. Go ahead and go back. Actually, do you want to give me the car key so I can get my Kindle? I just think I'd rather try this after receiving the full introductory class."
"No, no, it's OK. We can go," Alexandre said. "Just let me get my shoes."
He came back out to me and the leader man, who was waiting for us to leave so he could lock up the gate again.
"Sorry for all the confusion," Alexandre said earnestly. "We really thought it was at 10:00. The website said 10:00, and the email said 10:00. Was it you who I emailed, sir?"
The leader man ignored Alexandre's question. "Are you following us on Facebook?" the leader man asked.
"Well. That's the problem. Our Facebook is the only place where we post updated information. You shouldn't be using the site." He said it as if we were the ones who'd made the mistake. I found it amusingly ironic that we weren't allowed to wear shoes or clothes with patterns but that we were required to use Facebook if we wanted to be involved.
"Yes, all right then. Thanks anyway," Alexandre replied.
Most Catholic and Christian Brazilians will literally say "go with God" when you say goodbye, so this leader man said, "go well." We just nodded and walked away as he closed the metal gate and pushed the padlock shut.
Alexandre was annoyed with the man for being so non-communicative. He was annoyed with the teacher for not telling us to just come back next time, because the class was important. He was annoyed with me for walking out, because he said I embarrassed him and that he had been looking forward to it and that now he was too ashamed to go back.
I insisted that he could've stayed. I argued that he can go back for the next beginners' class and that there's no reason for him to be embarrassed. I defended myself by explaining that I don't think they really wanted us there in the first place. I got the impression that they liked the exclusivity of their center and that they did not possess the "anyone new is welcome" mentality of other religions. I wondered whether they were correctly representing the Buddhist faith in their exclusivity. What it came down to was that I wasn't going to blindly do what someone tells me to do for no reason other than to prove that I'd do what they said, because that's kind of what the whole thing felt like. At worst, it was that. At best, it was just a really disorganized meditation center.
Ah, religion. How your sense of community eludes me.